November 23, 2009

Too Little, Too Late?!

The resumption of a beautiful friendship? (AP photo)

Ever since Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan walked out of the Davos Summit meeting in protest of Israel's war on Gaza, Israeli-Turkish relations have undergone a steady downward spiral. Erdogan was, in fact, furious at Israel's unilateral campaign that undermined progressing Israeli-Syrian peace talks under Ankara's mediation. Tel Aviv did not take kindly to Erdogan's action, and asked Ankara to more or less mind its own business. Since then Turkey withdrew from scheduled NATO military maneuvers in the Mediterranean citing Israel's participation as the reason, and wishes to cancel orders for Israeli-made Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Erdogan, furthermore, stated his preference for dealing with Omar Al-Bashir, Sudan's president, over Benjamin Netenyahu. This comes at a time, when Turkey is pursuing a policy of mending relations with all of its neighbors, including Armenia, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

When Netanyahu said Turkey would no longer be a mediator of Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations, observers assumed he had just hammered the last nail in the coffin of Turkish-Israeli relations. This judgement might turn out to be premature, however. First, the alliance between the two non-Arab Middle Eastern states is well-established; it is likely to supersede the reign of Erdogan's AKP party. The Turkish military, known for its remarkable autonomy, has had frequent contacts with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Private companies on both sides have made substantial investments in their counterpart's economy. Second, a recently-launched charm offensive by Israel's Industry, Trade and Labor minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer may cool the tempers on both sides. On his trip to Ankara, Ben-Eliezer was accompanied by a number of Israeli businessmen seeking to buttress the two countries' trade. Ben-Eliezer went so far as to contradict his prime minister and emphasize Turkey's importance in mediating the conflict between Tel Aviv and Damascus.

Though Turkey's deputy prime minister stressed the need to improve bilateral ties, obstacles to a resumption of the status quo ante abound. Speaking to Israeli newspaper Yadi'ut Yahranut, Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman described Ben-Eliezer's visit as "important, but not coordinated with the foreign ministry." Additionally, Turkish public opinion has been turning sharply against Israel following the war on Gaza which left 1400 Palestinians dead, mostly civilians.

It remains to be seen whether the Israeli minister's visit constitutes a thaw in otherwise chilled relations or would prove to be too little too late. I am inclined to argue Turkish-Israeli relations are unlikely to return to their pre-Gaza status.

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